Everyone loves a good background story; I’ve been lucky enough to talk about this a couple of times in podcast interviews, and I feel grateful I get to share today. I’m going to share a couple of key messages that I think are going to bring a lot of value to people; however, there are some potentially triggering topics that I write about like suicidal ideation and trauma.
In 2009 I was walking through the park not too far from where I live when I was assaulted. I was 16 years old, about to sit my GCSE at the end of high school. The confrontation was quick; I was actually blindsided, so couldn’t really react as a right hook put me on the floor. You hear a lot of stories where people have been assaulted like this, and the adrenaline kicks in.
For me everything went numb, the whole experience just happened to me, I was a passenger along for the ride. You could say that I disassociated from the experience. When it was over, I was leaning against an abandoned car with clothes torn, catching my breath. I started running home and then sprinting until I burst through the front door of the house.
All in all, I walked away with a bruised cheek, nothing really. After a week, people could be forgiven if they couldn’t remember something so insignificant. It’s not really a big event in the grand scheme of things, people – especially kids – get beaten up all the time in high school. For me, it was significant though.
Significant enough that I didn’t want to leave the house for the next six months; I retreated from the world in a massive way. I had some massive support from people around me who wanted the best and meant well but said things like: ‘Go back outside; you’ll see that what happened was so rare.’ or ‘You’ll probably never see that person again.’ I tried my best to take tackle what was in front of me; nothing could stop the nausea, sweating hands, irrational thoughts, and electricity of anxiety running through my veins.
I couldn’t help thinking to myself that I was in some way broken, that no one else had a clue what I was going through, and I’d be alienated or ashamed if I revealed what it was like for me. Regular activities like going to town were difficult because I had this picture of what my attacker looked like, and it’s like my brain labelled anyone that resembled that profile with the same level of intensity and anxiety as if I had seen that person.
The irrational thoughts would flood my brain, and I’d do anything I could at that moment to get away from the situation. I felt like each day that went by I had fewer options. I would say things like: ‘I can’t go there because …’ or ‘I’m not up for that.’ It was an incredibly lonely and difficult time because of how much I kept to myself out of fear that I wouldn’t be understood and that I couldn’t be ‘fixed’.
Years ticked on by like this; I was daydreaming through life. I would binge shows like Lost (which is brilliant, by the way) until the early hours of the morning. I’d sleep in until late afternoon because getting out of bed felt like climbing a mountain. I didn’t want to look after myself, not showering or brushing my teeth for days.
My personal relationships were in tatters as I lived my real life under a veil where it felt like a house slowly burning down to the ground. Phew, well that’s all quite a lot reading that. I’m tired just typing this, but it’s a reflection of the environment in my head at the time. I had to do everything I could to cover it all up.
Let’s stroll over to me at 20 years old. I am around £6K in debt, got my first corporate job, and am still unable to handle a lot of aspects of social life. My mental health was in the toilet; there was no such thing as self-care or self-esteem. I had no clue who I was anymore. A trip to my dad’s house was always lovely. We’d have chocolate buttons, sit around, chat about life, and enjoy each other’s company.
We had a lot of family around that day so it was a great excuse for me to fade away into the background and eat lots of chocolate. By the evening, most of the family had trickled away until it was just me and Dad, alone. Dad asked me how I was doing. Of course, like a vending machine, I dispensed my stock answer ‘I’m fine.’ to which Dad said ‘But how are you really doing?’
This was a curveball; I couldn’t just talk my way out of this one. So I said nothing. Dad continued: ‘I just think that there is something going on with you. You don’t seem like yourself; you seem like you’re fading away. I’ve been seeing a therapist, and I think you should see one too.’
The depths of my denial were vast. I denied that anything was wrong, and I was insulted. The truth is the truth, though, and you can’t run away from it your whole life. You see, Dad was right. I would often wonder what a world without me would look like. Would people miss me? I would think about making it all go away.
The upside of taking my life had gotten to the point where it was starting to make more sense than being alive. I would see cars racing along the road near where I lived and imagine walking out into the road. I would think of ways of making it painless, and all of these thoughts felt normal.
Luckily, Dad saw right through my shit. It wasn’t easy reconciling this information that I might not be OK, and I didn’t do anything immediately to help my situation. What did happen though was that this idea bubbled to the surface of my conscious mind enough that when I was having a particularly bad day at work, I made a decision.
I decided that it was time to ask for help so I looked up therapists in my local area on Google and found the website of someone that looked friendly. I rang the number and left a voicemail, and there began my journey to recovery.
The message that I want to convey here is a couple of things:
- What happened to me, while obviously being horrible, wasn’t the problem – the problem was that I didn’t feel like I could connect to others around me about what was happening. This was because of stigma and because I did not feel comfortable asking for help. My support network crumbled as a result. I didn’t have the emotional resilience to process the trauma in front of me.
- If someone had asked me directly and not given me a way out as Dad did then, I would’ve opened a lot sooner.
So, if anything, this should help you reflect not just on the pitfalls of society but potentially the pitfalls in your own mind. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy, and recognising this is the key to getting help. It’s my wish for you that you are able to see this in yourself or others and just have a conversation, because it could save a life.
Dan Udale is a mental health campaigner and podcaster. You can connect with him on Twitter @dan_udale.
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